Their Major Is Alienation



    Talk about school overcrowding: as if in a communal anxiety dream, TV has returned en masse to high school, offering a quartet of new takes on socialization and its discontents. On NBC's 1980 period piece Freaks and Geeks (scheduled for a Sept. 25 debut, 8 p.m. E.T.), the pencil-necked latter scurry from gym-class bruisers wielding dodge balls. On Fox's Manchester Prep (not yet scheduled), the tormentors are the rich preppies in the secret society the Manchester Tribunal, their weapon psychological cruelty. And the WB's Popular (to bow Sept. 29 and 30; regularly Thursdays, 8 p.m. E.T.) has outsiders alienated by social castes and beauty-magazine standards; the network's Roswell (Oct. 6, 9 p.m. E.T.), UFO-crash orphans alienated for being alien.

    The business motive behind these shows--and other new series with major teen characters, or spin-offs of teen hits (The Parkers, Angel, Time of Your Life)--is simple enough: success breeds imitators, and the large (about 31 million), fickle 12-to-19-year-old demographic draws ad money. But the economics alone don't explain the high school vogue, nor why the shows include a couple of the fall's better premieres. True, high school programs are still often mired in soap-opera plots--see the randy Manchester, whose early glimpses just miss so-bad-it's-good status--but they are also attracting writers and producers seeking to make statements and referencing hot-button issues and carrying credits like The Larry Sanders Show, The X-Files and My So-Called Life on their resumes.


    "Adolescence is a great period of time to write about," says Jason Katims, once a writer for mscl and creator of the acclaimed but short-lived romantic drama Relativity, whose brooding alien-human love story Roswell follows three teenage aliens as they evade discovery and seek their origins. "It's where so much of you is formed and the themes that will follow you your whole adult life are born." And doing a show about it is a great means of getting noticed. TV has fed the teen beast before, but these programs now enjoy cultural prominence, with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's Creek becoming emblems of post-feminist girlhood, sex, violence, name your issue, in a way that Saved by the Bell never did. Today you hardly hear the word teen without angst following, but what these series display is adult angst with perkier buns and better clothes, grownups positing kids as canaries in the societal coal mine. Whither the world of tomorrow? these shows ask. And what designers will it wear?

    Columbine High, where social-outcast status turned to murderous outrage, didn't create these series, but it lent them urgency, focusing as each does on that basic high school and Hollywood concern: popularity. Set in America's laboratories of tyranny, empathizing with misfits, the shows purvey the myth that much as there were suddenly no Nazis in Germany after V-E day, there are now apparently almost no former popular high school kids. "I very much identified myself as an outsider [in high school]," says Katims. "I was king of the geeks," says Manchester Prep creator Roger Kumble. "I totally think I'm a geek," says Leslie Bibb, who plays a knockout cheerleader on Popular.

    And what, after all, is popularity? Popularity--basing cliques on money and genes and je ne sais quoi--is class with training wheels. In a country that pretends it is entirely middle class, high school series serve as surrogate examinations of social barriers. (Or certain ones: while the great dramatic potential of high school comes from its throwing together kids whose parents don't work or play together, these shows are almost uniformly white.) This In crowd-obsessed setting comes as close as is Nielsen-feasible to admitting that class is still in session: that it does matter where you were born and what you own, that there are invisible psychological obstacles to moving outside your circle, that social mobility is hardly frictionless. When school brain Lindsay Weir on Freaks, for instance, mixes with a crowd of rebels, she is dallying with kids who, as one puts it, "shoplift in [her] daddy's store." Roswell, likewise, explores nature-vs.-nurture questions through its teen aliens--two were adopted by a well-off family; the other grew up poorer in unloving foster homes--though Katims is cautious not to come off as issue oriented: "If you have a message," he says, "send a telegram."

    Whereas Popular--in which a gorgeous, blond teen goddess and a gorgeous (but brunet) rebel become stepsisters-to-be--appears to have Western Union on speed dial. The original pilot (which is being expanded to two hours) takes on body image, eating disorders and virginity, just for starters. Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Gina Matthews talk excitedly about future theme issues: cheating, fame, the social pecking order (Bibb's cheerleader is named Brooke McQueen--get it?). They aim to make, as Murphy calls it, "a Zeitgeist show" that nails the teen experience du jour with rapid-response precision; they repeat "reality" and "real" like mantras.

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